Like most boys I wanted to be any number of action man figures when I grew up. Fireman, policeman, fighter pilot and astronaut were but a few. Of course I never got to be any of those but I did get to be a soldier.
At that time South Africa had a national service system for all white males and I was called up. Along with thousands of other frightened teenagers I was bundled on a train and shipped off for two of the worst/best years of my life.
We were treated quite well for the first day or two. Then we had our medical exams and as I came out of the medical centre with a G1K1 rating the fun started. Running, cleaning, running, PT, cleaning, running, lectures, PT, running, marching, cleaning, shooting, running, lectures, PT, running for three months. Somehow I made it through, lost a lot of weight and actually ended up feeling like a soldier.
Home for a short leave and back again for specialist training. Two thousand troops formed up on a parade ground. Officers calling out specialties and telling us where to form up. Mortars, sappers, signallers, chefs, clerks, “better get going or I’ll be a foot soldier for the rest of my time”, anti-tank, drivers “hey how bad can that be?” So off I go to become a driver.
Lectures, road signs, vehicle maintenance classes and finally the army considers me fit to learn to drive their vehicles. Run to the vehicle park, get there too early, no problem just run back and forth a few times and do some PT in the road. Finally we see our vehicle and “WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?”. A Bedford circa 1947, oh man I hope we don’t have to push to get it going. After much grinding of gears and beating about the head we get the hang of it. Once we have mastered this we’ll get to drive Buffels. “Hang on a minute, those are land-mine protected troop carriers, I might actually have to go to war.” Jump at the chance to be an HQ driver, will learn to drive SAMILs and get to stay near home.
Twenty-six of us go off for six weeks of more lectures, servicing vehicles, driving practice, running, off-road driving, running, night driving, running. Back to our unit only to be told that twenty-four passed the course and they only need eighteen. Six will have to go to the border. “Ok, I’ll go. I wanted to be a soldier anyway.”
Middle of the night we leave for the air force base. Board the Flossie and try to get some sleep during the three and a half hour flight but I’m way too excited. Land at Grootfontein and can’t believe the heat. After six more hours on the back of an open truck we arrive at Oshivelo. Here we will undergo further training.
A week later we’re off to Ondangwa where we will spend the next three months. The entire base consists of tents and incredibly white sand surrounded by earthen walls. Crawl into my sleeping bag on the floor of a tent and fall asleep immediately. There will be no beds until the ou manne leave. BANG BANG BANG, shouts of “walle toe, walle toe”, BANG BANG BANG. Darkness, confusion, half asleep, fear, “where’s my rifle, under attack, I’m going to die and I just got here.” HA HA HA, ou manne laughing, calling us “dom roofies“. It was just the 40mm anti-aircraft guns practising providing a great way to scare the new guys.
My first patrol, get the Buffel ready, troops get on. Leave the base and head off into the bush. “Hey driver, stay in the vehicle in front’s tracks. We don’t want to hit a mine”. Anti-climax, no mines, no contact, not even a sign of the enemy. Many patrols, sweeping the roads for mines, still no contact, until… Picked up a company of troops in Angola and suddenly WHOOMP, a vehicle hits a mine, everyone off the vehicles, could be an ambush. No it was just a mine, just 7 kilograms of sudden death. Nobody hurt, life goes on.
Months later and I’m driving for a Romeo Mike unit. It’s night and I’m the lead vehicle, as I drive out of the bush and onto the road there is a bang and a flash of fire streaking towards me. The RPG misses and our troops open fire but the enemy just disappears into the night. And that was my only contact in sixteen months in the bush.
Highest medical fitness rating. The G rating indicated the type of activities you could do and the K rating indicated where you could be deployed. G1K1 means you can do any training and be deployed anywhere.